One of my classmates from grad school posted on her facebook wall the other day that there were some birds on her lawn. She was really excited because, as she explained, that type of bird was her "totem animal." Her friends were excited because that type of bird really only comes out at night, and to have a big bunch of those birds on her lawn during the day is unusual, so they expressed excitement over this auspicious event. She then reiterated, no seriously, this is her TOTEM ANIMAL, so it was extra special.
I'm not mentioning what kind of bird it is, because in my tribe, this type of bird is a harbinger of death. To have this type of bird as one's TOTEM ANIMAL would be a very BAD THING. Even naming that bird is bad news. I briefly considered mentioning this on her wall, but instead I just blew it off, because really what would that accomplish? But it bugged me on two levels. One, because this person is so white European, her cultural appropriation is just irritating, and the other, because she is smarter than this, so what gives?
But then I was reminded of grad school. Oh, grad school, that painful place where you try to do so much in such a short amount of time.
I went to an ivy league school, with little diversity. People were liberal, well-educated, and they tried. Or at least they pretended that they tried. I liked my classmates, I really did. Most of my friends were midwives, I was in oncology and end of life care. We would joke that they did one end of life, I did the other, and that was why we got along so well. The midwifery program had a ceremony for their students at the end of the year, this is not uncommon for midwifery programs. Some places call it something along the lines of "The Blessing of the Hands." The sentiment is that these people will then go and welcome lives into the world, and so their hands will be blessed to do this task. At my school, at that particular time in history, they called their ceremony a blessingway ceremony.
A true Blessingway Ceremony is a very holy ceremony, presided over by a Medicine Man. It takes many days, it's expensive, and requires a lot of preparation and prayer. It doesn't get accomplished in an afternoon with a gaggle of women sitting in a circle in someone's suburban home, snacking on hummus. I've never been to one. I wouldn't dare insinuate that I know anything about it more than what I've said. But these women got REALLY excited about their blessingway ceremony, and started planning for the corresponding potluck weeks in advance. It was truly offensive.
So I said something. I pointed out that it was racist, and offensive, and that all they really needed to do was change the name. They said they liked the name. And then they made fun of me. And they used air quotes. They mocked me, instead of changing the name. They didn't understand that these things have meaning, and by appropriating them, they demean the ceremony, themselves, and the damage relationships with their peers. It hurt. And the TOTEM ANIMAL woman was part of that. The last few weeks of grad school were really unpleasant because of this, because I pointed out something was racist, I made people uncomfortable, and they decided that I was the bad guy.
I know, in my heart, that they are good people who were just ignorant. And maybe, someday, they would understand that hurting people through ignorance is just as racist as overtly calling someone a racist name. Or misusing spiritual terminology out of place.
And maybe I know in my own heart that I shouldn't wish ill upon the worst of those perpetrators, that I shouldn't hope that their misappropriation of what I consider holy comes back to them someday. That would be no better.